Flies everywhere—buzzing around the eyes, landing on flesh living and dead, thriving in the heat and decay. There’s scarcely a scene in The Proposition, John Hillcoat’s eccentric Outback oater, that doesn’t feature the winged pests. They’re crucial to the scene setting, to the film’s unromantic depiction of colonial Australia—a place where death and the fiery orange sun loom together, the latter conspiring to hasten the former. “I will civilize this land,” swears beleaguered Captain Stanley (Ray Winstone), in from England to play sheriff of a one-horse Aussie backwater. But if he can’t even keep the flies out of his Christmas dinner, how’s he to stop the notorious Burns gang from satisfying their brutal appetites on his town, his disloyal men, or his terrified wife (Emily Watson)?
Written by Bad Seeds frontman Nick Cave, who also composed the hypnotic score with frequent collaborator Warren Ellis, The Proposition doesn’t so much subvert the conventions of its chosen genre as simply transport them to a different frontier. (You can take the Western out of the Old West…) Stanley, the film’s requisite weary lawman, has an ace up his sleeve in the form of a prisoner—another stock character, the conflicted outlaw in the 10-gallon hat. Charlie Burns (Guy Pearce, looking more mangy dog than man) must track down and kill his murderous older brother Arthur (Danny Huston) to save the life of his mentally challenged younger brother Mikey (Richard Wilson), who Stanley promises to hang on the holiday if Charlie doesn’t deliver. Tracking the subsequent manhunt in parallel with uneasy events back in town, Hillcoat introduces variations on other archetypes: a cackling bounty hunter (John Hurt), a cruel British dandy (David Wenham), and a tribe of armed aboriginals, serving the same function as the marauding Indians in a homegrown Western.
The Proposition, in other words, doesn’t stray too far from the genre’s usual preoccupations, most pointedly the conflict between oppressive civilization and merciless anarchy. The devil is in the details, the flavor provided by Cave’s offbeat dialogue, the gorgeously ominous terrain, and the way Hillcoat’s grisly violence arrives like a thunderclap, a spear running clean through one character seconds before a Winchester takes the face off another. The performances are especially valuable: Winstone brings a shivering vulnerability to Stanley, a hard man plainly out of his depths, while Huston plays his black hat as a kind of Zen psychopath, charming and good-natured when he’s not stomping someone’s head in. It’s a feat of casting, from the leads down to the bit parts; everyone looks perfectly at home, slathered in blood, sweat, tears, and swarms of dark insects, the miniature vultures of this savage kingdom.
Availability: The Proposition is available on Blu-ray and DVD from Netflix or possibly your local video store/library. It can also be rented or purchased from the major digital services.